Living — A Writer’s Success

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Several of the posts in the last few weeks have touched upon a writer’s rollercoaster career and dealing with the emotions involved.  It brought to mind something specific I wanted to discuss today — our self-worth and the measure of success.

In the US, our capitalist economic system has engrained itself into almost all of our culture, including what defines success.  This is true in many other nations of the world, too, but I can only speak from the experience of being born, raised, and living in the US.  And what defines success here is (no surprise) money.  We measure ourselves by how much money we have.

That may seem obvious but it is amazing when you think of all the subtle ways that concept pervades our culture (which makes me think that this can also double as a world-building post).  For example, it is considered rude to ask co-workers how much money they make.  What if they make more or less than you for doing the same job?  What does that say about your standing or theirs?  Gratuity for jobs like waiters or taxi drivers or bellhops is supposed to be given based on merit — the better job they do serving you the more money you leave them.  Of course, that has changed into an expected percentage, but the original concept was more merit driven.  And on the other end of the scale, ostentatious displays of wealth equal displays of power.

This thinking also has become part of our artistic culture as well.  We publicly measure the success of art — books, movies, music, paintings, etc — by the amount of money that work garners.  The New York Times Bestseller list is just that — a list of what books have sold the most.  It says nothing about the quality of those books, but we instantly assume on a gut level that if it’s a big seller, it must be worth reading (even when we can intellectually know that’s not true).  Movie box-office receipts are the most important gauge of a movie, and having the #1 song merely means it is outselling everyone else.

But in a business like writing, where the majority can’t make enough money to write full-time, how are we supposed to define ourselves?  If we define a writer’s success in financial terms, then the majority of us are doomed to failure.  Even many well-known names don’t make a whole lot, so what’s a little guy to do?

Well, the easy answer, like most easy answers, is not so easy.  You have to learn to redefine success.  It sounds simple, and you may be thinking “Oh, of course, that’s obvious.  Success for me is just getting published.  See, problem solved.”  The trouble is that most of us who think that are lying to ourselves.  Deep down we want to sell big.  We can’t help it.  It’s been knocked into our heads from the day we were born.  It’s the true, secret reason we all want to be published by a traditional, big house publisher.  Small press is great but it means less financial resources and less bottom line money coming to us, thus less prestige — in other words, less success.  And of self-publishing — let me put it this way.  If the majority of self-published authors made as little as fifteen thousand dollars a year or more off of writing, nobody would look down on them.  Yes, we can talk about art and quality and all kinds of things, but deep in our bones, where our brains can’t think with reason, it comes down to money.

But it doesn’t have to.  It may take a long time, but each of us is capable of re-programming our definitions of success.  Facebook is proof.  Yes, Facebook.  In Facebook culture, there is a definite measure of worth — Friends.  The more Friends, the more successful you are in that culture.  In the Facebook business world, we have Likes (as in, hey I have finally started a Stuart Jaffe Facebook Fan Page, so go ahead and Like me!).  Twitter and Blogs have Followers.  As a culture, we have re-defined a small segment of our lives to not measure success via money.

We can do the same in our writing life.  We have to.  If we don’t, we can’t survive as writers.  I’ll try it now.  For me, I want to make a steady living as a writer, in that my books are enjoyed enough that I can keep doing the job.  See that — I just defined my success in financial terms again.  It’s hard if you’re going to be honest.  I’d love to say success as a writer means creating a wonderful story that people can enjoy — but that’s not honest.  I want that story, yes, but I want it traditionally published, too.  And I do want to make a living doing this.  Like I said, not so easy.

But we still must try because ultimately, the numbers are against us.  Most of us will not sustain a financially lucrative writing career.  However, that doesn’t mean we can’t find success as a writer.  We just need to rethink what that means.  We need to find a better way to measure our art and thus our self-worth than simply money.  I wish I could conclude this post with an answer, but as you can see from my own attempt at such a definition, I’ve got some work to do to.

Today I’m off to Richmond, VA for Ravencon.  If I can get online to answer comments, I will do so.  If not, I’ll respond by Monday at the latest.  I’m sure my fellow MWers will keep the conversation going in the meantime.  Have a great weekend!

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21 comments to Living — A Writer’s Success

  • Absolutely, Stuart. This is a tough one and I think you’ve done a great job of laying out what is an uncomfortable truth. The one thing I would add is that while money is about power and status in publishing (as in most things) it’s also an index of reach. Big money means lots of people are buying (and presumably reading) your book. I think that’s a legitimate reason to want a major publisher. Don’t we all want to touch as many lives as possible? Of course, if your need to be a household name means that you cater your work to the lowest common denomenator, then that’s just as problematic as working solely for the big payoff: 6 of one, half a dozen of the other.

  • I had an awkward feeling in my gut while reading this. I suspect that was the truth hurting. I have a business degree and spent years in sales and management where the success = money quotient was ingrained even further. It’s tough to think of a first success being something as simple as finishing a novel. Then revising and polishing one. I tell myself that even querying and getting three partial requests is success too.

    The real truth is that there are a ton of successes out there if we care enough to look for them. I hope all of you find the successes you’re looking for, and some you were not.

    -NGD

  • Thanks, Stuart. Sometimes painful truths are necessary.
    For myself, I’ve never harbored the illusion that my writing could be a primary means of support. I’m a single mom with a disabled adult child. I need insurance. I write because I can’t not write. I know. I spent ten years not writing – and during those ten my mind continued to ask ‘what if’ and generate worlds and plots and villans. The cast of characters in my head continued to have conversations. I scribbled notes and created languages and … you get the idea. The only thing I wasn’t doing, as a writer, was putting the story on (virtual) paper and trying to sell it.
    Yes, I want people to read what I write. Yes, I want to see those acceptance letters and checks that say my writing is Good Enough for Public Consumption, but that’s not how I measure my success.
    For me, the measure of my success, my worth as a writer is someone saying, “Hey, this is Good.” Or, “You wrote this? You are really, seriously warped, you know that?”

  • Lyn hit the nail on the head here. “I write because I can’t not write.” That’s what it all comes back to. I’m not going to stop writing no matter what happens.

    Validation is nice, though. I’ve already been through that gut-wrench NGD mentions, but at this point, I can’t focus on the money. So hearing that someone else in The Biz likes something I’ve written, even if not much comes of it, makes me feel a bit better. It also has a flip side, in that I’ve had a fear of submitting my writing because I fear rejection, but I’m working on that. (BTW, awesome news: yesterday I just found out I was one of five winners in a SF microfiction contest. Whoo, twelve bucks plus copies!) Validation like that gives me the confidence to submit other stuff.

  • This is a wonderful, honest, painful, thought-provoking post. I would love to say that the success I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy as a professional writer is enough for me, that I’m content to be making decent money (not enough to support a family, but enough to supplement what my wife makes and give us a nice, comfortable life) doing something that I love to do. But the fact is, I want more. I thought, when I first started out, that by now I would be making more. And so to some degree, I am disappointed in the trajectory of my career. And I’m pretty sure that if I was doing better, I would still be looking to do even better than that. There is, I believe, some value in that. I think a person can be content while still hanging on to ambition and the desire to reach new levels of “success.” But I also know that by measuring my success in dollars I’m giving short shrift to my accomplishments. This is something I struggle with daily, and like you, Stuart, I don’t know yet what the answer is.

  • Stuart, this was hard to read. My eyes kept wanting to skip to the end becasue my brain didn’t want to take it in, but I forced myself to read it and every one of the comments too.

    And — I want more. For the last 10 years I’ve been honest with myself and saying (out loud) that I want more. It’s selfish and stubborn and difficult. But I want more. And I’m getting it little by little. It isn’t easy. It’s like paddling up a fast river, making one little climb at a time with great effort and exhaustion. And the delight is … far away, all too often.

    This year I am going to be doing a lot of new things in the way of PR, with the help the new PR firm, all in prep for the January release of Raven Cursed. I am nervous, and worried. Becaue in the back of my mind is the taunting voice that says, “If you don’t make it this time, you never will.” I hate that part of me! I really hate it.

    That said, thank you for this post. It forces me to focus on today’s goals. Page count. :) Because without that, I have nothing.

  • I think success is, and always will be, a moving target. That’s why it’s so vital to focus on and enjoy the journey. Easier said than done sometime, but still…

  • Thanks Stuart! Defining success is challenging, to be sure. I’m not set on traditional publishing, I might go the self-pub route, but either way, I need to know what success means to me. Is it number of books sold? Enough money to quit my job and write full-time? Number of blog followers or website visits? Good reviews? Positive feedback from people I admire? I don’t know yet, but you’re absolutely right that it shouldn’t be defined purely by financial means. There’s a lot more to life and success than dollars in a bank account. (Though the dollars are necessary too, at least to some extent.)

    @NewGuyDave – I love your interpretation of this. Success is about achieving goals. First it’s writing that novel, then editing, publishing, getting readers…take each step by itself, and be proud of your accomplishments! That *is* success!

  • @Faith – I read your comment after I posted my own…I just want to say that “wanting more” is not “selfish, stubborn, and difficult”. Well, okay, maybe difficult. But it is ambitious. Without goals, why continue? Without pushing yourself, you never get better. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied, because to me, that leads to being lazy…or at least that would be my perception of myself if I didn’t continue to grow, learn, and do better. IMHO, there should always be a next step, another goal to reach.

  • Somewhat slow but functional wi-fi!!! I’ve got a few moments before the con gets going, sooooooo —

    AJ — Thanks. And you’re absolutely right. I think most authors want to reach as many people as possible. I certainly do.

    NGD — I think setting up smaller, obtainable goals is a great way to keep yourself motivated. And while that’ll make each step a small success, I’m not so sure it’ll take out the need for that larger validation. For me, at least. Obviously, if it works for you, then keep going with it!

    Lyn — Excellent point. Sometimes our immediate needs can “help” us re-define success. And congratulations! I’ve sold short stories for less than $12, so consider yourself raking it in!! :)

    David and Faith — You both talk about something I didn’t really get around to in the post (and I see that Ed touches on it too) — we always push that goal line further away, we always challenge ourselves to reach that next level. And the higher we reach the more painful the falls (of course, the more glorious the successes too!). You all said though — while reaching for those goals, we must find a way to enjoy the success of the present, as well.

    Megan — Your welcome. It is a challenge, but finding what works for you leads to greater satisfaction than going by what the world around you dictates. Good luck on your journey!

  • A very simple thing helped my brain shoot down the notion that money = success, the idea of winning the lottery. Say I buy a winning ticket, and I suddenly have more discretionary income than many small countries. Does that mean I’m a success? What exactly did I succeed at? It certainly wasn’t any talent or skill of mine that brought me these riches but rather pure dumb luck. Money equals easy access to comfort, not success.

    I can’t say that I now have a clear definition of just what success is for me, but this simple thought experiment finally kicked money out of the equation.

    (Now I’m going to go buy a lottery ticket and write some more.)

  • Unicorn

    Luckily, I still bask in happy, carefree adolescence. Uh… sort of. Right now, I measure success by the amount of unnecessary words I can cut off that nasty clunky 152 000-word (it used to be 160 000…) YA novel. (I have to HALVE it!! Groans, groans).
    I know I disappeared – and missed a bunch of really cool posts – my excuse: I was at a cow beauty contest. Seriously. I have witnesses. I came ninth. I mean to say, my cow came ninth. Eh, I better go to sleep, I’m getting incoherent. Stuart – hope you enjoy the con! I’m green as a leek, yet again!
    Unicorn

  • I don’t have anything new to say, but I’d like to second David’s comment.

    @Laura: Congratulations!!!

  • I have a t-shirt that reads “The journey IS the destination.” I always try to remind myself of that when things are tough.

    I’ve never had any delusions that I’d be able to earn a living from writing and nothing more. Too few people achieve that goal, and even when they do, they can’t always maintain it. Money comes, money goes.

    My wife earns from $500 to $1000 dollars each month from her 10 self-published books (all non-fiction). It isn’t enough to live on, but it certainly helps pay the bills. If my fiction books are eventually able to contribute, I’ll be a happy camper.

    But for now, writing is my avocation. I’ve traded in the time I used to spend on other hobbies (like gaming) for writing instead. I’ve learned so much in the last three months of study and experimenting that I sometimes feel like my head is going to explode.

    But when I sit down and write, and I watch my story world unfold before my eyes, or I come up with a killer new dimension to a plot or character, I get this feeling of intense excitement. I’ve been known to do an air punch after particularly gratifying revelations. That feeling means success to me.

    I’m happy when I’m writing, and in the end, that’s what matters most.

  • Laura – Congratulations!!!! **Snoopy Happy Dance**

  • Success? I dream of winning the lottery with my writing like everyone else. Heck, even supporting myself with my writing would be outstanding.
    Realistically, though? I’d just like people to read my stuff. And tell me I’m improving as I write more.

    Oh, and I’d love to actually hold a completed novel in my grubby hands, even if I have to print it out on my ink-jet. :)

  • Laura — Sorry, my congratulations from earlier was meant for you! My brain is jumping all over today.

    To everyone — I’m glad for you all. You seem well-prepared for the journey of a writer. Far better than I ever was (or still am, for that matter). Try to hold on to that and best of luck.

  • Thanks Scribe, and Widdershins!

    Stuart – no worries. Thanks. :) It was just 200 words, but validation is nice.

  • I obviously have the dream of seeing my book being made into a movie by Peter Jackson and getting discussed in the same breath as Tolkien :) But I would like to see myself talked about in the third person, preferably in a positive review.
    I have a day job I really enjoy, that I’ve spent a lot of time in. Some might call it a career. Writing is like my secret identity, the other me and I crave the day someone else meets my secret identity and likes what he does.

  • The problem is, you can’t get away from the money. For instance, I personally define success as “sufficiently supporting and providing for my family – food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment.” But to provide even the most minimal of those things, I need money. Yeah, theoretically I could hunt/farm for food, sew clothes, and build a house with my bare hands. But our society doesn’t work that way anymore, and my skills don’t make those feasible options. Instead, those things are assigned a monetary value, and I need to make enough money to pay that amount to acquire them for my family.

    Of the productive skills I do have, one of them is storytelling. That’s one I’d like to use to provide for my family. Ideally, I’d define success as doing that “providing for my family” thing through the medium of telling stories. Realistically, I have to redefine it as “providing for my family” through the medium of using a variety of my productive skills, including sustainably telling stories.

  • It would be really nice if I could remember, after a grueling climb up a particularly difficult mountain, to turn around and look where I started. I’m so focused on “what’s next” I forget to acknowledge how far I’ve come.

    That, for today, is my definition of success. To remember where I started, and applaud what I’ve accomplished.

    (We’ll see if I remember it tomorrow when I’m beating myself up for not getting to my word count)
    Jen Greyson